Gandhi’s 1904 Plague site set to be destroyed

Mahatma Gandhi’s historical site under threat. The area contains the Site of the Historic Rietfontein Isolation Hospital and now a proposed development in Johannesburg, of Rietfontein Farm 61IR, situated bordering Linksfield Rd, Club Str, N3 highway and Modderfontein Road will now have this site destroyed.

The Rietfontein Hospital, later renamed the Sizwe Hospital, was established in the late 19th century to treat patients with small pox, bubonic plague, leprosy and TB. Various sources estimate the number of bodies in the cemetery to be between 6000-7000. A 171 Hectare development has been planned for the site. It will include thousands of affordable houses, schools, shops and a recreation centre. An Environmental Impact Assessment is currently being carried out by Bokamoso Landscape Architects and Environmental Consultants. A HIA should form part of their work. The Provincial Heritage Resources Authority Gauteng (PHRAG) is aware of the project.

“Mahatma Gandhi played a role in the identification of the outbreak of the Plague in Johannesburg as well as the fact that had it not been for his quick intervention in isolating the victims and bringing it to the attention of the authorities at the time, the spread would have been absolutely catastrophic. This was as a result of the apartheid regulations in place at the time. He was instrumental in getting people to be treated at Rietfontein Hospital and worked closely with the authorities. In addition, we have the added association of Desmond TuTu who was also treated there. The buildings are of historical value as are the lives of the Drs and nurses that worked there. There are other more appropriate initiatives that need to be explored. History and opportunity once lost can seldom be recovered.”

 “This is where I am appealing to the a Indian Community to come forward to represent Gandhi s history and preserve his contribution and memory in this area.  If it weren’t for his intervention, many of the descendants of Johannesburg wouldn’t be here today.” L VD Schyff

It has been proposed that to develop this area into an inclusionary development.  Unhappily, it contains the graves of some 7000 people who have perished from some of the worst plagues known to mankind.  Only a very small portion of  these graves can actually be located.  There are two missing cemeteries, the Plague Cemetery and the Jewish Cemetery.  A small action group has been formed to rally against the development and they have managed to find burial record for some of the graves in the Jewish cemetery but not the location there of. Most of the other records have all been destroyed and the grave stones and markers have been stolen or smashed.  Many of the graves had wooden crosses that have been burned in the veld fires.  In addition, there has been extensive illegal dumping on the site. There are many risks associated with opening up the graves of people who perished from smallpox. Lynne VD Schyff has highlighted that they have the historical background that is also of utmost importance and needs to be protected.

The chronological trail of Mahatma Gandhi’s Plague Hospital in 1904

  1. February 11, Alerts Johannesburg’s Medical Officer of Health to overcrowded, in sanitary conditions in Indian locations. Warns that plague may break out.
  2. February 20, Writes again to Medical Officer of Health on health hazards in Indian location.
  3. March 18, Plague breaks out in location. Gandhi informs Medical Officer of Health that dead and dying Indians are being dumped in location
  4. March 19, Town Council allocates a warehouse for a makeshift hospital but declines to bear any further responsibility. Indian community equips the “hospital” and takes over nursing of patients.
  5. April 5, Gandhi publishes his correspondence with Medical Officer of Health on plague.

mahatma gandhi

We are a small action group and have the backing of the Heritage Society of South Africa.
Mahatma Gandhi s role in the identification of the outbreak of the Plague in Johannesburg as well as the fact that had it not been for his quick intervention in isolating  the victims and bringing it to the attention of the authorities at the time, the spread would have been absolutely catastrophic.

This was as a result of the apartheid regulations in place at the time.  He was instrumental in getting many of these Indian people to be treated at Rietfontein Hospital and worked closely with the authorities.  In addition, we have the added association of Desmond Tutu who was also treated there.  The buildings are of historical value as are the lives of the Doctors and nurses that worked there. There are other more appropriate initiatives that need to be explored.  History and opportunity once lost can seldom be recovered.

In a scramble to amass a huge heap of cash, the developer would house some 8000 people from disadvantaged backgrounds onto the land that holds the remains of many of their own ancestors.  They would have no understanding of the associated risks of the diseases or of the history and will occupy bonded properties. The developer plans to “make features” of the small number of graves that can still be identified!

Be aware that we disagree with much of the information that they are giving out to the public.  It would be helpful to lodge a formal objection in writing to the scoping company Bokamasa who are busy with their feasibility study  You are more than welcome to contact me for any additional information or contacts that you may require.  This is of the utmost urgency and it would be appreciated if you would forward this to as many influential people in the Indian community as possible.

To find out more and how to assist please, contact Ms. VD Schyff  on email here

Sources: SA History ; Heritage Portal

Grave Concern


About Naufal Khan

Publisher & editor of Indian Spice.

One comment

  1. I am very disturbed that there has been no involvement or any interest shown by the Indian Community in this matter. There are Indian graves there, surely they cannot just be ignored. The name and presence of Ghandi there surely deserves support to preserve the site.The constitutional rights of residents and communities are being trodden on, there is a huge health risk due to the nature of the diseases that the people died from. Bubonic Plague, Small Pox, Anthrax etc.

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